Arguing for the right to strike

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By Ali Crabtree, Prospect conference delegate (pc)

June 3rd saw over six hundred members of the trade union Prospect descend upon the ICC in Birmingham for our biennial conference, as the elected representatives of 140k members.

Prospect advertises itself as a union for professionals, scientists, engineers and managers and represents workers predominantly across Energy, Research, Communications, Defence and Government sectors. Keen observers would know this is the first full conference since media union BECTU disaffiliated from the Labour Party to be merged with Prospect eighteen months ago,which surprisingly is less time than BECTU has been in full scale dispute with Picturehouse cinemas.

At their very trade union conference, a Picturehouse worker asked delegates to support their motion instructing their national executive to campaign in their support. Having seen a long and bitter dispute demanding wild indulgences like a living wage and proper maternity pay, the legislation around the conduct of strikes has become a key battleground.

In 2016, the Conservatives introduced the latest in a string of increasingly restrictive pieces of anti-union legislation, having started under Thatcher in 1980. Picturehouse’s expensive legal team have consistently used this legislation to threaten litigation against BECTU, making strike action increasingly bureaucratic and expensive.

At the last election, Labour made workers’ rights a key element of the manifesto. However, except for an oblique reference to bringing Britain’s industrial relations laws in line with international obligations,the manifesto was silent on the anti-union laws beyond repealing the 2016 Trade Union Act. This is despite the stronger position, for instance on restoring the right to solidarity action, passed unanimously at the 2015 Labour Party conference.

The 2017 conference passed, again unanimously, a clear policy on repealing not just the Trade Union Act but also the anti-union laws introduced in the 1980s and 90s – but again, this policy is not yet being campaigned for. In their motion, based on the statement being promoted by The Clarion, the Picturehouse workers from Hackney welcomed the policy and called upon Prospect/BECTU to proactively campaign against all anti-union legislation.

Next up, speaking on behalf of the Prospect National Executive, General Secretary Mike Clancy. He stated his support for the Picturehouse workers and their brave campaign against a vicious employer that refuses to even recognise or negotiate with the union. However, whilst he supported the majority of the union rights motion, he urged conference to have it remitted (returned to the executive for editing before adoption) because opposing all anti union legislation would not be appropriate for a ‘modern’ union. Some legislation, such as the requirement for a ballot before action, was acceptable.

Is it not odd that a democratic organisation with a fully elected leadership would still seek legal restrictions on their ability to defend their members? Surely a member-led organisation would want to define the terms under which they decided to sacrifice hundreds of pounds in pay and breach their employment contract, a decision that no sane person would take lightly, rather than have this process dictated by the state?

Our trade unions have vast skills and experience in negotiating with employers. They represent members from across industry and workplaces and they operate formal democratic decision making, deciding policy and procedure meticulously.

They should be perfectly placed to decide how a group of workers could strike in a sensible democratic manner.

I feel like Prospect members,with their many scientists and experts and culture of evidence based decision-making should know this. So how do we find ourselves with a union leadership proactively seeking external regulation?

After much debate, the vote was too close to call and a card vote was called for, whereby a vote is calculated proportionally to each delegates membership.

In the end, the leadership got its way and the motion will be amended, but the fact it was so close shows the nature of the right to strike can once again become a live debate for the movement.

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